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Lasers remain resilient despite economic woes

23 Jun 2008

As the worldwide economy struggles to cope with rising fuel prices and falling consumer confidence, industry experts predict continued growth for laser manufacturers.

Novel laser designs, falling costs and continuing miniaturization are driving sustained growth in the laser market, says Steve Anderson, editor-in-chief of Laser Focus World, in an update of his 2008 laser market forecast. Speaking in Birmingham, UK, Anderson said that the laser market is unlikely to hit the 7% expansion he predicted back in January, but that laser manufacturers will still enjoy positive growth in 2008.

Anderson was speaking at a UK version of the Laser Marketplace Seminar, which is presented by Laser Focus World every year at Photonics West. The UK event, supported by the UK's Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and hosted by the Photonics Cluster, also featured an updated forecast from David Belforte of Industrial Laser Solutions and an insight into the European photonics market by Arnold Mayer of Optech Consulting.

Back in January, Anderson stressed that the uncertain economic outlook made it particularly difficult to predict the laser market this year – and at that point the price of oil hadn't yet topped $150 per barrel. So the key question at this week's meeting was whether Anderson and Belforte have had to revise their forecasts in the intervening months.

Anderson, whose remit covers lasers for all applications, was the most cautious. He pointed out that the microprocessing market, which accounts for about one-third of the revenues reported by large laser makers such as Coherent and Newport, is at risk from falling consumer spending on electronics goods.

The upshot is that a number of fab projects have been put on hold, which in turn has affected sales of semiconductor processing equipment. "A recovery in the semiconductor market had been expected by the beginning of 2009, but that has now been pushed out until late next year," he said.

The good news, he says, is that other markets are compensating for the shortfall. Revenues from telecom lasers are expected to increase by 14%, driven largely by modules for fibre-to-the-home installations, while sales of fibre lasers are also forecast to grow by 16% in 2008. Other notable hotspots are ultrafast lasers, where the introduction of turnkey systems has opened up a range of new applications, and biomedical imaging.

Belforte, meanwhile, remains confident in his original prediction that laser sales into manufacturing applications will grow by 7% in 2008 to reach $1.84 billion. But he also pointed out some differences in the detail.

For example, he said that sales into eastern Europe have been stronger than expected, while in western Europe sales have been slower. At the same time, increased sales throughout Asia have made up for weaker than expected demand in Japan and China.

"Materials processing remains resilient to changes in regional economies," he said. "Europe will edge up as newly industrialized nations push the market up."

Mayer rounded off the presentations by offering a closer view of the European market. His analysis showed that Europe is particularly strong in defence photonics, optical communications, manufacturing technology, life science and lighting. He also pointed out that Europe is well placed to exploit the growing market for solar modules and panels, particularly in Germany. And with oil prices rising, solar technologies could come to the fore sooner rather than later.

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